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Environment and History

Conservation, Control and Ecological Change: The Politics and Ecology of Colonial Conservation in Shurugwi, Zimbabwe.

JoAnn McGregor

Environment and History 1(1995): 257-279

The transformation of rural societies and their strategies of resource use in the colonial period was the outcome of contestation, negotiation and alliance on a number of different levels. Conservation ideas and policies have played an active part in this process, shaping as well as reflecting the nature of colonial rule. Though the appeal of conservation lies in invoking mutual benefits, the history of its implementation in Zimbabwe is one of authoritarianism and discrimination. For settlers, conservation entailed financial and other incentives: for Africans, it entailed coercion and punitive restrictions on resource use. Conservationist alarm provided not only a justification for state intervention, but also a legitimation for using force. Focusing first on official discourse and the conflict which accompanied the passage of early conservation legislation, this article then looks at the different interpretations of the effects of implementation in Shurugwi communal area. Shurugwi was particularly significant because it was the testing ground for early state interventions and was upheld as a model of successful state 'development' a representation which allowed for the (forcible) reproduction of the same policies in different ecological contexts around the country. Policies justified as conservationist provoked some of the most widespread rural resistance and also created new environmental problems. Where local leaders welcomed state conservation interventions, they often did so for different reasons than those officials intended: adoption was not necessarily an endorsement of the policies' technical value. As legitimate political authority at local level was tied to maintaining the fertility of the land, disputes over conservation were at the same time struggles over local authority. Such disputes drew on notions of the relationship between nature, community and ancestors which differed significantly from the 'autonomous' view of nature enshrined in natural science. Although local environmental knowledge is often more detailed and commonly incorporates a more accurate understanding of local conditions than officials' technical ideas, local as much as official representations of ecological change are embedded in a political, economic and cultural context, and are neither shared nor uncontested.


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